Modifying behavior

November 04, 2005

President Bush and Congress keep pushing supply-side solutions to higher fuel prices, but many Americans have a better idea: They're buying less of the stuff.

Gasoline consumption dropped by 4 percent to 6 percent below the usual post-Labor Day lull, according to industry estimates. Governments imposed energy-saving measures, such as Anne Arundel County's move to put many employees on four-day workweeks. Businesses are squeezing savings out of their energy costs with tactics such as Wal-Mart's move to convert its truck fleet to fuel-efficient hybrid vehicles.

Environmentalists tend to view corporate measures such as Wal-Mart's with a wary eye. They've heard a lot of "greenwash" over the years from industries with image problems. But there's no doubt that higher fuel prices prompted all sorts of consumers to vote with their wallets.

National leaders should embrace this conservation trend - especially before falling gasoline prices take some of the pressure off. Curbing demand is the only practical solution to blunting the bite of energy costs.

Instead, Washington is turning a blind eye to the real world. The Bush administration and Republican lawmakers are using outrage at higher gasoline prices as an excuse to get rid of all these pesky environmental regulations they never liked in the first place in the cause of increasing fuel supplies.

Not only is Congress on the verge of finally opening Alaska's wildlife refuge to oil and gas exploration, but legislation approved by the House would open millions of acres of federal public lands and forests in the lower 48 to construction of oil refineries as well.

These, and other measures like them, are as pointless as they are destructive.

The era of cheap gas appears to be over - but the pump price never reflected the true cost of that gas to the economy and the environment. If higher prices or even scarcity make for less wasteful consumption, the result, at least, is a welcome development. In fact, with the price of gasoline dropping as the delivery system overcomes its hurricane-related disruptions - and perhaps in response to lower demand - this might be an opportune moment to raise the federal gasoline tax. That would enable the nation to benefit from price-driven conservation while also pocketing extra cash to put toward mass transit projects.

No matter how feverishly energy companies exploit America's woods and wilderness, the supply-side approach won't serve the nation - and the world - nearly as much as curbing demand.

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